Senate Natural Resources Committee passes bill to put moratorium on suction dredging

SACRAMENTO, 28 April 2009 – California’s Senate Natural Resources Committee today passed SB 670 (Wiggins) with bi-partisan support, placing a temporary moratorium on the issuance of recreational suction dredge mining permits by the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) until a thorough scientific review of the impacts is completed and regulations are revised. The bill will next go to Senate Appropriations for consideration and approval before going before the full Senate. The bill includes an urgency clause, requiring 2/3 vote to pass in each house, which would result in the law going into effect immediately upon signing by the Governor.

Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin, CEO of The Sierra Fund, testified at the request of Senator Wiggins on the importance of the bill. “In light of the state’s budget crisis, we are concerned that funding for the review and rule-making will be slowed down, and the review could take years. We are also concerned that the well-documented impacts of suction dredging on water quality and endangered species will continue while this environmental review is underway, despite evidence of the harm of suction dredging.”
Suction dredging disturbs fish habitat, putting endangered species such as Coho salmon and green sturgeon at risk. In addition, repeated government studies have shown that suction dredge activities disturb and mobilize the mercury left behind from gold mine operations.

 Gold miners in the 19th century used an estimated 26 million pounds of mercury to extract gold from ore in California, with an estimated 13 million pounds lost to the waters and soils of the Sierra Nevada and Trinity Mountains. Suction dredgers often encounter mercury and gold-mercury amalgam, which tend to fall into the cracks of the riverbed like gold. Dredgers collect the mercury and amalgam, and treat it to release any gold that may have amalgamated with the mercury. They then recover the mercury and usually store it, though some miners dispose of it in an unauthorized manner, such as pouring it back into the river, onto the ground, or in to municipal sewer systems.

Suction dredges re-suspend and “flour” mercury, increasing the surface area and making it more readily available for bacteria to methylate. Methylmercury has been a regulatory concern of the State for years due its known serious effect on human health.  

“The rules that govern this practice are woefully outdated,” noted Martin. California Department of Fish and Game was ordered by the California courts to undergo a CEQA review and rule change as a result of a lawsuit filed in 2005. The courts ordered DFG to complete the review and make appropriate rule changes by July 2008, but DFG has not met this deadline.

The Sierra Fund has worked with the state’s leading scientists as part of our Initiative to assess and address the impact of gold mining on our state. Our report, Mining’s Toxic Legacy includes research developed by the US Geological Survey as well as SWRCB on the impacts of suction dredging.

The full text of Mining’s Toxic Legacy with photos of suction dredging activities can be downloaded from The Sierra Fund’s website: